Is there a way to achieve both the generation of profit and conservation of biodiversity at the same time?
To investigate this actual question within the context of global discussions about sustainable cultivating methods, we spoke to a landowner and farmer in the Kandyan Forest to tell this story from the landowner's perspective.
In general, the soil in the Kandyan forests is very fertile and the weather conditions good and thereby set a great initial situation for biodiversity and diverse cultivation. This in turn has attracted many people to buy small areas of land and become farmers. Many of them have a background in agriculture and felt prepared to buy and cultivate land.
However, farmers in the Kandyan Forests have been facing some challenges over the past years. Nowdays, many of them can hardly survive out of the profit from cultivating their lands. The biggest issue to farmes is the wildlife. While the abundance of wildlife in the forest is a pleasure to any visitor, it causes great troubles to the farmers. Deer, giant squirrels, wild boars and especially monkeys are a great threat to cultivation. Monkeys and giant squirrels eat the coconuts, cacao, ripe coffee cherries and any fruit they can get a hold off, while the wild boars run through the fields of turmeric and deers chew on the vanilla plants. This is what the owners of Polwaththa Eco Lodges also experience.
Small landowners therefore highly depend on governmental support to protect their cultivation from wildlife. However, they do not receive the kind of support that they believe is needed, such as financial support for electric fences that are solar powered with small voltage or assistance with catching the wildlife. It appears as if there is a huge gap between the government's and farmers' perception on this issue. A consense has not been found yet.
Due to the lack of profit generation, many farmers feel forced to sell their lands or to engage in deforestation projects to gain timber money. Because short-term profit is urgently needed, selling the land and cutting trees is much more attractive than leasing it per month, for instance, and focusing on a biodiverse cultivation. This is also related to the general issue of focusing on short-term profit generation instead of long-term turnovers as farmers are highly dependend on immediate profits, also partly due to a lack of financial planning.
Additionally, there is a lack of demand from the employees' side, especially from young people. Since the financial situation and perspective for the younger generation has been very critical over the past decade, more and more young people are leaving Sri Lanka to find more promising jobs overseas. This results in a lack of young workers that contribute with fresh mindsets to the current agricultural situation in Sri Lanka.
Considering the above-mentioned situation, it is important to think about how to promote a balance between profit generation and conservation of biodiversity.
What could a solution look like?
Landowners propose to catch the animals with the government's support and to then send them to nationalparks, which would need to be extended to be able to accommodate the greater number of wildlife. It sounds a little extreme but it sums up the level of frustration.
What is really needed as a first step is an eye-opening and proper education for the wider population as well as for the landowner and farmer. Within that younger generations should be the main focus. It is highly important to encourage students to develop and intrinsic motivation to sustain biodiversity and to stay in Sri Lanka to work in the agricultural sector. However, the monetary prospects need to be appealing at the same time, interest and motivation for conservation is not enough on its own. It needs to be reinforced by financial incentives.
Sufficient governmental incentives are highly neccesary to meet the landowners' need for short-term money. In order to encourage landowner to engage in conservation practices instead of deforestation, the financial incentives need to match the timber profit, according to a farmer we spoke to. Further, it is necessary to shift the focus from short-term thinking to long-term thinking by introducing financial incentives that put value in trees and biodiversity to support conservation. Sri Lanka could follow the role models of other countries, such as the United States, Great Britain and India, where governmental and international banks first set budgets for conservation and then distribute financial incentives. Landowners and farmers can apply for loans and receive attractive rates if they meet certain criteria for sustainable cultivation practices. In 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued $1.77 billion to farmers and landowners through its Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). By participating in this program, farmers and landowners can apply for attractive loan interest rates issued by the USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) if they engage in conservation practices as part of their land cultivation. This is an example of how access to capital and meeting cash flow needs encourage private landowners to engage in sustainable agricultural operations.
But it is not only about education and financial incentives, it is also about communication and collaboration. At the moment, landowners and farmers might communicate with each other but for everyone it is an individual fight. It is important to encourage regular and elaborate conversations between not only the landowners but between all stakeholders involved. Only then it will be possible to develop common senses, best practices and to create a sense of co-responsibility, interconnectedness and community. Those regular discussions must happen on a larger and rather strategic scale instead of an individualistic one and the contribution of young mindsets is highly needed. Besides, the willingness for compromises of all stakeholders is needed, it can never be a oneway street. Farmers, landowners, the tourism, wildlife and agriculture deparments as well as other governmental authorities need to work side by side on a long-term solution.
Finally, it is necessary to understand that conservation cannot happen as a second step after deforestation and profit generation out of monocultures. Instead, conservation and profitable cultivation must go hand in hand and support each other. We need to aim for a shift from short-term thinking and short-term profit generation to long-term thinking by putting value in trees with the assistance of governmental incentives. Those practices need to be understood and manifested in everyday cultivation: every tree has a potential value - governmental loans and incentives could bridge the necessity of short-term profit and long-term value.Let us all work together and work towards a balanced future between profit and conservation - that has to be possible, doesn't it?